The History of Otsego County, New York
D. Hamilton Hurd
Published by Everts & Fariss, Philadelphia
JORDAN, Ambrose L - Cooperstown
This distinguished lawyer and eloquent advocate was born at
Hillsdale, Columbia Co., N.Y., in the year 1791. His father was a
farmer of Scotch-Irish descent, who, possessing a very strong
physical constitution, and endowed with superior judgment, lived to
a very advanced age, and was always held in high esteem by his
neighbors. The son, having received the limited education of a
common school, was at an early age set to work on the paternal
acres; but it soon became apparent that agricultural labor was not
his proper vocation, and, after some futile trials in farming, whereby
it was demonstrated that he had a strong taste for study and books,
but was incurably indolent as a worker on the farm, his father wisely
determined to permit the boy to work out his career in the way
indicated by his own wishes.
He was sent to an academy, where he soon acquired as much
Latin, and other miscellaneous learning, as could then be obtained
in such an institution. For several months he sought to recruit his
limited finances by teaching a school himself. As soon as he could
command the means to pay his board he entered a law-office in
Albany, where he distinguished himself by the closest attention to
study and office business, and, by the intelligent performance of
extra duties, was able to provide in a great degree, for his own
support. Having been admitted to the bar in the year of 1813, he
commenced the practice of law at the village of Cooperstown, having
formed a copartnership with Farrand STRANAHAN, Esq., who was
an established lawyer at that place. At the time he thus commenced
the serious business of life, Mr. Jordan was only about twenty-two
years of age. He was quite six feet in height, was slight and graceful
in figure, had regular, oval features, a profusion of brown curls,
expressive blue eyes, and a complexion as fine as a woman's. His
voice was not loud or particularly powerful, but it was most agreeable
in quality, and had a distinct carrying force which always enabled
him to be heard in the largest and most crowded courtrooms. He
had great powers of endurance, and could work many hours a day
for consecutive weeks, without any apparent signs of fatigue. In
long and exciting trials, in the heat and foul air of crowded courts,
he was always able to appear fresh and strong, when other distinguished
advocates became worn out and exhausted. He had a natural command
of language. In extemporaneous speaking his sentences were
regular and complete; he never hesitated for the appropriate word;
he had a natural aptitude for going to the bottom of any subject, and
when an adverse witness had been cross-examined by him, the witness
was like a sponge squeezed dry. His methods of managing a cause,
examining witnesses, and summing up the evidence were exhaustive
and complete. When he had finished his address to a jury no point
was left unnoticed, no argument failed to be duly elaborated, and
nothing further could be said with effect.
Several anecdotes are still remembered in connection with Mr.
Jordan's career at Cooperstown, which give an insight into the
character of the man. He hated all unfairness, and would not himself
submit to extortion or imposition. Having gone to a neighboring
town in Otsego County to try a cause in a justice's court, on his
return home in the early evening his wagon broke down. There
was some snow on the ground, and just after the accident happened
a farmer drove up in a lumber sleigh. Mr. Jordan asked is he would
assist him to get to Cooperstown, some five miles distant. The man
replied that he would, and then the two put the broken wagon on
the sleigh, and leading the disengaged horse, drove on to Cooperstown.
No bargain had been made as to compensation, and when Mr. Jordan
inquired what he should pay, the sharp farmer replied, naming a sum
that was extortionate. Mr. Jordan was annoyed, but calmly stated
that the pay demanded was three times as much as the service was
worth; that rather than have any hard feelings about the matter, he
would pay double price, but no more. The offer was refused, and the
farmer departed, breathing threats. Within a very few days a summons
was served on Mr. Jordan to appear before a justice, who was a near
neighbor and friend of the farmer. On the trial the justice gave
judgment for the plaintiff for the full amount of his claim, and costs.
As soon as the law would permit, execution was issued on this judgment,
and placed in the hands of a deputy-sheriff for collection. Mr. Jordan
managed to have information of the coming of the officer to collect
the judgment. Mr. STRANAHAN, the law-partner of Mr. Jordan,
was the owner of a handsome gold watch and chain, which for that
occasion Mr. Jordan borrowed, and hung up conspicuously on a nail
on the front of a deck at which he was writing. That being done, the
officer came in and told Mr. Jordan he had an execution against him.
Mr. Jordan said he did not intend to pay it. "Then," said the officer,
"my duty requires me to levy on your property, and I shall take this,"
at the same time taking the watch and putting it into his pocket. Mr.
Jordan said to the officer, "My friend, I advise you to put back the
watch. If you do not you will get yourself into trouble." The man,
thinking he was quite safe, left the office, taking with him the watch.
With all possible expedition a writ and other papers in a replevin suit
were prepared in a suit of Stranahan against the deputy-sheriff. The
sheriff of the county was found, the replevin writ put into his hands,
which he at once served on the deputy, took back the watch and
delivered it back to the owner. The deputy-sheriff called on the
farmer to indemnify him in the replevin suit, which he felt compelled
to do. The result of the affair, which was soon arrived at, was this:
the plaintiff succeeded in the replevin suit, the costs of which
amounted to over one hundred dollars. The judgment obtained by the
extortionate farmer was about twenty dollars, and he finally had to
pay over to Mr. Jordan, as Stranahan's attorney, the difference
between these sums. The attempted imposition was amply punished.
At the period referred to, and, indeed all through life, Mr. Jordan
was sensitive in regard to public opinion, and the following story, as
related by himself, illustrates that feeling: "After I had settled at
Cooperstown, but before I was much known in Otsego County, I
had occasion to go to Albany to attend a special term of the supreme
court. My friend, the cashier of the Otsego County bank, who knew
of my intention, requested me to take a sum of money, - I think it
was $1800 - to be deposited in a bank in Albany. I agreed to take it,
and the money was counted in my presence, separated into parcels
of $100 each, and the whole nicely put up in a package. I received
the money, and with my satchel of law papers was conveyed in due
time to Albany. Before going to court the morning after my arrival
I thought I would deliver the money at the Albany bank. The moment
I looked at the package I saw that it had been tampered with.
Examining it hastily, I found that one package of $100 had been
abstracted. The loss was a serious one to me at that time, but I
decided in a moment what it was proper for me to do. I went to
the office of a friend, borrowed $100, put it into the package, and
hurried to the bank and deposited the whole amount which had been
entrusted to me. I said nothing to the officers of the Otsego County
bank about his loss, or to any one else except the kind friend who
lent me the money to replace it, and secrecy was enjoined upon him."
A peculiarity of Mr. Jordan - an unfortunate one in some respects,
as it caused him to labor a large portion of his life for those who
never paid for his services - was this, that having once enlisted in a cause
nothing could detach him from his client. Whether he was paid
anything or not, he went through to the end of the controversy.
He was often imposed upon by unfortunate or unworthy clients.
While practicing at Cooperstown he became the legal guardian
of certain minors, who had a presumptive title to a military lot of 600
acres, situate in a central county of the State of New York. The
lot was in the possession of another party, holding adversely. An
action at law was brought by Mr. Jordan to recover this property.
Upon examination it was found that the evidence to support the claim
of the plaintiffs was very defective; and particularly that one witness,
who had knowledge of decisive facts, was imperatively necessary.
That witness, when inquiry came to be made, could not be found.
He had disappeared. The time for the trial of the ejectment suit was
approaching, when Mr. Jordan determined that he would not be
beaten in it if any possible effort on his part could prevent it.
Having only a slight clue as to persons with whom the missing witness was
connected, Mr. Jordan set out with his own horse and wagon from
Cooperstown, drove to Albany, then to Columbia county, making
minute inquiries by the way; then on to Dutchess county, where
some slight information was obtained; then to New York city, and
finally to a small hamlet on Long Island, where the desired witness
was found, and his attendance secured for the trial. Mr. Jordan
hastily returned home, and had barely time to reach the circuit court
where the case was to be tried. By the aid of the witness thus found,
the title of Mr. Jordan's wards to the lot in question was established.
He had devoted much time to examination and preparation of the case,
had spent fifteen days in hunting up the missing witness, and five days
more attending the circuit court, and he was successful.
When Mr. Jordan's accounts as guardian came to be settled, the
law permitted him to charge against his wards the items of money
actually paid out on their account, but nothing for his professional
services. For all his time, trouble, and skill in the affair, he never
received a cent of compensation.
The professional progress of Mr. Jordan was rapid and solid, and
in two or three years he became the acknowledged leader of the
Otsego County bar. Soon after he had settled at Cooperstown, he
married Miss Cordelia Caroline PHILLIPS, at Claverack, Columbia
Co., N.Y., and of this marriage the issue in subsequent years were
six children, three of whom have died, and three at the present time
In the year 1820 he determined to return to his native county, and
accordingly established his law-office in the city of Hudson, where he
remained in full and successful practice for the next eighteen years.
The first difficulty to be encountered at the Columbia county bar, by
any one aspiring to a prominent position as an advocate, was, that it
became necessary to meet and contend with Elisha WILLIAMS, who
had long held almost undisputed sway in the courts in that district.
Mr. Williams was then in the full maturity of his wonderful powers, and then and ever since considered, by those most competent to form a judgment on such a subject, the greatest jury lawyer ever produced by the United States. He was certainly the best actor the writer has ever seen on any stage. He commanded with equal effect the springs of laughter and
of tears. The most stoic of judges could with difficulty resist the
spell of his eloquence, and ordinary juries seemed to delight in being
quite carried away with it. It was against this colossus of the
law-courts that Mr. Jordan was at once brought into antagonism, and it
is still remembered to his credit that he did not shrink from the
Indeed it soon became an established fact in the courts of Columbia
and the neighboring counties, that Mr. Williams could no longer
succeed in winning a bad cause when he was opposed by the thorough,
painstaking methods, and ready eloquence of Mr. Jordan. They were
generally employed on opposite sides, and tried all the contested cases
on the calendar.
On one important occasion the writer remembers that Williams and
Jordan were employed on the same side for the plaintiff. A suit was
brought to collect an ordinary note the defendant alleged to be a
forgery. From the notable position of the parties, the question was
discussed with much bitterness of feeling, and public opinion as
convulsed on the subject. At the trial in Columbia county a New York
city judge presided, and a city lawyer was the leader for the defense,
with half a dozen other counsels to aid him. The judge was somewhat
deaf, and that gave the plaintiff's counsel an opportunity to keep up a
fire of jokes at the expense of the judge and the opposing counsel
within hearing of the jury, but unheard by the court, which tended to
and did greatly prejudiced the jury against the defendant and in favor
of the plaintiff. The cause was easily won for the plaintiff, and the
judgment was finally collected. Many persons, however, continued to
think that the superiority of the plaintiff's counsel rather than the justice of
his case secured the verdict. Upon the retirement of Mr. Williams from
actual practice, a few years after Mr. Jordan settled in Hudson, Mr.
Jordan became the acknowledged leader of the Columbia county bar,
and retained the position until he finally removed from Hudson. Some
years before that event he became introduced to a New York city
audience by a peculiar suit at law, which then attracted much attention
by reason of its novelty. A young house-painter at Hudson was engaged
to be married to a young lady of the same city, whose father was
possessed of considerable property. This lady happened to make the
acquaintance of a merchant in New York, whom she (and her father
also) considered a more eligible parti, and when he offered he was
accepted, and the house-painter was thrown over. The mechanic did
not rest satisfied with his arrangement. He consulted Mr. Jordan, who
brought an action against the fickle fair one and her husband. The
cause was tried at a circuit court in the city of New York, attracted
great public attention, and was fully reported. The defense was
conducted by Henry R. STORRS, Esq., an advocate of very
distinguished reputation; but in spite of all his efforts, the jury
found a verdict of $1000 for the plaintiff, which was considered, in view of
all the adverse circumstances, a great triumph.
In the spring of 1838, Mr. Jordan, along with his law-partner,
Edward CLARK, Esq., removed from Hudson to the city of New York.
From May, 1838, to the spring of 1860, Mr. Jordan was continuously
engaged in the practice of his profession in the city of New York, with
the exception of two years, during which he filled the office of
attorney-general of the State of New York, and had his official
residence at Albany. During this long period of twenty-two years he was
retained and prominently engaged in a large proportion of the severely litigated causes which occupied the courts of New York.
It is impossible in a sketch like this even to allude to the many
important trials of causes in which he took a conspicuous part. It
will be sufficient to say that he was opposed from time to time, and
almost constantly, to the foremost advocates at the New York bar.
His success in those forensic struggles was satisfactory to his clients
and himself, and was equal to his distinguished reputation for ability
Mr. Jordan was always too much engrossed with his professional
labors to have time or inclination to accept political office. But his
views in regard to political parties and governmental policies were
always distinct, and were freely avowed and advocated. Besides
holding the office of attorney-general, as before stated, he was at
one time elected to the senate of the State of New York, but resigned
office before the end of his term. He was also a member of a
convention to revise the constitution of the State of New York, and
served in that capacity with much industry and ability.
After a painful and lingering illness, Mr. Jordan died at his
residence in the city of New York, on July 16, 1865.
Excerpt from History of Otsego Co., NY, page 282
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